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Why Books Make The Best Gifts

As a child growing up in Scotland, I was often given useful gifts — underwear, a school uniform, a protractor — and so it was with cries of joy that I fell upon the hard, rectangular parcels that promised delight and escape. I can still remember the thrill of unwrapping “The Wind in the Willows,” “Alice in Wonderland” and a very Scottish book called “The Pheasant Shoots Back.” While the adults around me went through their tedious rituals, I disappeared into these wonderful stories.

Now, every December finds me in my favorite kind of shop — a bookshop — thinking about my family and friends. Irrespective of what they’ve asked for, I try to give everyone on my list a gift that they can open over and over again: a book. Sometimes this is in addition to whatever they’ve asked for — a wok, earrings, socks — and sometimes instead of.

Although I’ve known most of my recipients for years, choosing a suitable book is by no means an easy task, and I’ve come to think of these hours that I spend scanning the shelves as a kind of meditation on my friends and family, as well as a way to discover my own, sometimes surprising, opinions of various books.

The fact that many people on my list do welcome books doesn’t always make the choice easier. One friend, a rigorous philosopher of science, wants to read contemporary fiction of substance in which no one dies and nothing terrible happens. Another friend believes, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, that novels became much less interesting in 1910 but has now read her way through the entire 19th century. My adopted brother and his partner have an unnerving policy of one book in, one book out (to the charity shop at the bottom of the road). Knowing that I am perhaps displacing an earlier gift (or, heaven forbid, my own work?) makes the choice of book particularly tricky.

While I wander the aisles of my local bookshops, I am pondering more intimate aspects of my friends than their shirt sizes or culinary tastes.

And then I have a number of friends who are omnivorous readers, always alert for the most recent publications. How to find the book that hasn’t yet crossed their paths but that they’ll be happy to discover and fall in love with? As for my adopted mother, a keen historian, the whole novel falls apart if, on page 17, the heroine isn’t wearing the right gloves to church.

In giving people books I must admit to a bias towards the industry to which I owe my livelihood. Nevertheless I do believe that, while I wander the aisles of my local bookshops, I am pondering more intimate aspects of my friends than their shirt sizes or culinary tastes. A good book will go with them and be their guide through the coming year, as the old Everyman edition used to announce. Of course sometimes I make mistakes and January often finds me back in the bookshop, implementing my generous exchange policy. But even when I get it wrong, I can claim that each book I give is the result of thinking long and pleasantly about the recipient, whether it’s my nephew who loves pirates, the dear friend who hates Jane Austen, or my husband, whose favorite novel, for as long as I’ve known him, is “Ulysses.”


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This program aired on December 17, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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